The Secrets Of St. Martin's Canal

Sep 08, 2020Hayden

In Paris, there is a picturesque waterway called the Canal Saint-Martin. It's one of the oldest waterways in Paris. It was constructed in 1802 on the orders of Napoleon, and it was supposed to bring water and boats into the area of Paris where it is located. Like most urban waterways, it's also heavy on pollution. In this case though, the pollution isn't just cans, bottles, or even trash. Since it usually goes at least 20 years between clean-ups, the items they find are fascinating! Read on to find out what was found in that canal and why everyone was so puzzled at first... 

Image credits: EPA/Yoan Valet

The Canal Area

As mentioned, the canal is in one of the prettiest areas of Paris. It has become popular in recent years with the younger portion of the population. It's also one of the dirtiest waterways in Paris and has been for some time. There are a lot of reasons for this, and we're going to talk about them in the next few pages. It helps to explain why they found some of the things that they found. What are the sources of pollution? 

Image credits: Getty Images

How Do You Know?

When the canal was last cleaned, by the end, you could clearly see the bottom. As it got filthier and filthier, the city knew they eventually had to clean it. Once you couldn't see the bottom at all anymore, they had to act. The cleaning process started on January 4, 2016. How big was it?

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik


The size of the canal is one issue, but that's because there are so many huge canals in Paris. They're all connected, and in total, there are over 80 miles of waterways there. A lot of the pollution from each canal tends to run into the other canals. Everything gets pretty nasty, and they have to be cleaned every so often. 

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons


This cleaning WAS a little different than the last one. That one was in 2001, and there have been a few developments in the community since then. The first is the introduction of a bike-sharing service called Velib to the city of Paris. Velib has introduced over 20,000 new bikes into the city of Paris. A lot of these bikes were abandoned and thrown into the canal. Many of these were discovered at the bottom. Who was abandoning these bikes?

Image credits: Reuters/Charles Platiau


The second thing that made this cleaning very different than the last one was the large new population of "Bobos" into the area. It's hard to explain exactly what a "bobo" is, but the closest cousin to a bobo in the US would be a "hipster". The area has become popular with young people who are fairly well-off and educated, but who also live in a particularly French Bohemian manner.  Are there other issues?

Image credits: Getty Images

General Cleanliness

Some of the areas like this one, which is just above the canal, have been overrun by graffiti and all kinds of garbage. It's not just the bobos that caused these problems. Tourists were just as much to blame, as well as other local residents. It's not hard to imagine the area being overrun with garbage. It was cleaned before, right?

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

The Last Time

When the canal was drained previously, in 2001, workers pulled over 40 tons of garbage out of the canal. Most of it was unremarkable, but there were a few treasures. They found some shells from World War I, lots of bicycles, lots of wheelchairs, and an entire car beneath the water. This time they would find even more. According to one man living there, “The last time, I don’t remember seeing so much rubbish in it. I despair. The Bobos are using it as a dustbin.” How big was the operation? 

Image credits: Reuters/Charles Platieu

The Size Of The Operation

Draining the canal was no easy task. The canal had to be drained of over 90,000 cubic liters of water. They drained it into the river Seine and then refilled it once it was completely cleaned out. They also moved the fish and other wildlife out. The entire process took 3 months and although the cost wasn't disclosed, it was a multimillion-euro operation. How did they do it? 

Image credits: The Local

How To Drain A Canal

In order to drain such a huge canal, extreme care has to be taken in order to divert the water correctly. First, the workers needed to put up an artificial dike, which will funnel the water going the opposite way of the current. This leads to an artificial lake called Bassin de la Villette. This ensures that the water has someplace to go. How does it come back?

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik

Forcing The Water

The workers then lead the water into the river Seine, and it will eventually lead out into the ocean. At the end of the operation, they remove the dam and the dike, and the water flows right back in from the Seine. It's a clever way to guide the water and it creates a circular path for the water. It's almost like a giant recycling pool! But why were the police there? 

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik

The Police Presence

As the canal was being drained, there was a fairly heavy police presence on the docks near the project. They were there to make sure no one jumped in. They also wanted to make sure that if anything illicit turned up, they could make sure that no evidence was disturbed. This proved to be a good idea on the very first day of cleaning. When did they get the canal drained?

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik

The Canal Is Empty

On January 7, 2016, the canal was finally drained completely. Spectators turned out all over the city to see the drained canal. They were all waiting to see what the workers would find at the bottom. They wouldn't be disappointed. They started to find some interesting items on the very first day. What did they find? 

Image credits: AP/Michel Euler

The First Find

On the very first day of drainage, the workers found a gun at the bottom of the canal. This was very unusual because it is illegal to own handguns similar to this one in Paris. It was turned over to the police, but the workers weren't sure whether it was real or a replica. Still, that was literally just the beginning of what they would find. What else did they find?

Image credits: Twitter/Oliver Gee


This time, they found even more bicycles than the last time. As it turns out, they were right about the Velib service. They found nearly 100 Velib bicycles in the canal. There were also a bunch of scooters, motorcycles, and other vehicles in there. They didn't find any cars this time. As evidence of a change in times, they did find one drone though! The bikes were a big problem...

Image credits: Reuters/Charles Platiau

More About The Velib Bikes

There were so many Velib bicycles found in the canal that the locals were shocked. One man, identified only as "Marc" told The Guardian “It’s like some kind of weird submarine treasure...I just can’t believe the quantity of Vélibs in there. I guess they were stolen and thrown in afterwards. It’s bizarre. But wait for it, as they found even weirder objects!

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik

Vintage Camera

Just like in the US, hipsters love vintage cameras. They found this one, which is a Rolleiflex made in Germany in the 1930s, right after the water was drained. Since the water had been drained several times before, this was a new addition to the bottom of the canal. What other stuff did they find?

Image credits: YouTube/La Parisien


You would expect to find a bunch of mobile phones in the canal, and you would be correct. There were a lot of mobile phones found at the bottom. They also found a lot of discarded computers. This is a bit more unusual because obviously, computers are bigger, and also because some of them were desktops. That's not something you would just have out on the street with you, so they were put there intentionally. Is that the craziest stuff? Well, not really...

Image credits: The Local
Road Roller

A road roller is a device used to smooth gravel and concrete in the construction of roads and highways. For some reason, a road roller was found at the bottom of the canal. Again, this is pretty unusual because there were no ongoing construction projects at the time of the canal draining. Were there other objects lurking under the water?

Image credits: Le Bon Coin

A Stuffed Animal

A large stuffed tiger toy was found in the canal too. Let's hope that the poor child who lost it has grown up at this point. Otherwise, he or she might see this and think that their poor toy drowned in the filthy depths of Canal St Martin. Then again, it might just belong to one of the bobos who carried it ironically. Poor tiger...was there something even stranger?

Image credits: Twitter/Benoit Vallet


A large mattress floated its way down the center of the canal during drainage. Mattresses are notoriously hard to get rid of, even in large cities. It appeared that someone just dumped this one into the canal. The birds even took the time to use it as a makeshift raft. This was the only one that anyone saw, which was surprising. How about the fish in the canal?

Image credits: Twitter/janeblnt


As mentioned, they moved the fish and wildlife out of the canal before they drained it. There were 5 tons of fish including trout, carp, and others. They were moved to areas that were not being cleaned, and then moved around as cleaning continued. Since there's no way to clean the whole canal at once, this was actually easier than it might seem. 

Image credits: Reuters/Charles Platiau

How To Move Fish

Before draining the entire canal, they first had to move all of the fish out. When the canal water reached 20 inches in height, the workers began trawling for fish. They found all they could and moved them into the nearby lake. They made sure that each one of them was moved before draining the remainder of the lake. Some were moved by hand, some were moved by net, but they moved all of them. What else did they find? 

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik

A Ghetto Blaster

Another hipster item. For those of you too young to remember what this is, it's a portable stereo, complete with a cassette deck in the middle. Colloquially called a "ghetto blaster", this is another item found at the bottom of the canal. Once again, this was a much more recent piece of trash than its age might suggest. What is the most "French" thing they found?

Image credits: EPA/Yoan Valet


Well, it IS France. There were thousands and thousands of cans and wine bottles found in the canal. While it's not surprising to find loads of cans and bottles in any trash, France does run a recycling program that is supposed to help. They also impose fines of up to 750 euros for littering if you get caught with too much trash. But seems they found something else... 

Image credits: The Local


There were a number of much larger objects found in the canal this time. They didn't find a car like they did in 2001, but they did find a few other large objects. These two motorscooters were found. It's crazy to think how they might have gotten there? Did they crash? Were they just junk? The license plates weren't found, so we'll never know. What other big items were in the river? 

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik

Office Chairs

It's amazing that some of the dumpings of these items went completely unnoticed. This is a picture of a large group of office chairs found at the bottom. They were mostly of the same make. It's easy to imagine some sort of office closing and the management just dumping everything into the canal. Easy to imagine, but disturbing to say the least. Did they find more?

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik

We already showed you a pair of motorscooters that were sunk to the bottom. This one is actually even crazier because it's the remains of a full motorcycle. These kinds of bikes are not usually allowed anywhere near the canal, so it's really strange to see one at the bottom. Again. most of the identifiers were unrecoverable, so the police didn't get involved. Did they find other items?

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik
Construction Materials

The gate and traffic cones that you see in this picture were used the last time the canal was drained in 2001. Apparently, they were left there to keep people away, and no one picked them up. So, a "bobo" threw them right into the canal. Whoops! They were much more careful this time around. What made up the majority of the trash?

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik

Party Material

The vast majority of the garbage thrown into the canal was stuff like this. Unremarkable bottles and cans. Plastic cups, plates, and tableware from picnics. People really love to party next to the canal, and they throw their trash in the river. Most of this stuff isn't biodegradable, so it was dumped into a landfill and will just sit. When was the project finally finished?

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik
The End Of The Project

The project was finally completed on March 31, 2016. Workers literally opened up the floodgates and the water poured back in. It was much cleaner and less smelly this time. If you got up close to the edge of the water, you could actually see the bottom of the canal for the first time in 15 years! What do the locals think about the future of the canal?

Image credits: The Local

The Future

Shortly after the project was over, the city of Paris began a campaign to keep people from throwing their trash into the canals. Deputy Mayor Celia Blauel told Daily Mail that “If everyone mucks in and avoids throwing anything into the water...we might be able to swim in the canal in a few years." That seems awfully optimistic, but very possible as long as everyone works together. Can people swim in the canal today?

Image credits: Agence France-Presse/Patrick Kovarik
The Canal Today

In the four years since the canal was cleaned up, it has remained relatively clean. It seems as though the Deputy Mayor's words went unheeded though because no one is swimming in the canal. We have a feeling that they'll need to clean it up again in a few years' time.

Image credits: Getty Images

These are just some of the items that were found in the Canal Saint-Martin during the 2016 cleanup effort. It's a bit sad that cleaning up a simple canal requires so much effort. Hopefully, this time, people will keep their garbage out of the canal and where it belongs. If you like this story, please share it with your friends. Thanks for reading! 

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